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2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 29397

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | Carlos Fausto.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online)

|Book Symposium|

The kinship I and the kinship
La parent en question (again)

Comment on SAHLINS, Marshall. 2013. What kinship isand is not.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carlos FAUSTO, Museu National PPGAS

Commenting upon Marshall Sahlins new book is no easy task. Not only because
of the amplitude of the question he poses, but also because of the theoretical
difficulties that this question imposes. Of all traditional topics in anthropology,
kinship is surely the most sensible to the nature/culture divide, and was the first to
succumb to its (partial) dissolution. True, kinship studies only succumbed in its
traditional form, being somewhat resurrected by the concept of relatedness
admittedly a loose concept but one that should make cross-cultural comparisons
possible again.
Relatedness brought together studies founded on a double
premise: that kinship had nothing to do with biology, and that biology (in the guise
of reproductive technology) had a lot to do with culture. It gave a name to a field of
inquiry that emerged against Rodney Needhams (1971) skepticism and from
David Schneiders (1984) critic of kinship studies.

The first question that popped up in my mind while reading Sahlins book was:
In which sense does the concept of mutuality of being differ from relatedness?
Or, more generally, how does his approach differ from its predecessor? My first

1. The word relatedness works better in English than in Romanic languages. It resonates
with the notion of relative, also a loose word pointing to members of an extended
group including both kin and in-laws. This is exactly the breadth of the notion of
parente in Portuguese (or in French, pace Dumont), which includes what kinship
excludes in the Anglo-Saxon world. Parente includes in-laws, as a Brazilian political
slogan of the early sixties makes clear. An important political leader was the presidents
brother-in-law, and could not present himself to the latter succession. His followers
wrote, then, on the walls: Cunhado no parente, Brizola para presidente (a brother-
in-law is not a kin, Brizola for president).
2. Needhams Rethinking kinship and marriage (1971) was translated into French in 1977
with the title La parent en question.
| Carlos FAUSTO
2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 29397
reaction was to spot a good dose of continuity between themafter all most of
Sahlins ethnographic examples come from people identified with the literature on
relatedness. However, on a second reading, I noticed that he is rather critical of
two central influences for the latter approach; namely Schneiders dissolution of
kinship and Marilyn Stratherns dividuality.
The definition of mutuality of being appears exactly at the point in which he
takes stock with both, criticizing Schneider for ignoring the symbolic constitution
of social relations (Sahlins 2013: 16) and Strathern for a certain confusion
between personhood and kinship relations (25). Through both critiques, Sahlins
strives to establish kinship as a definable object of study and calls for a more
sociocentric view of personhood, affirming that the person as the current idol of
the anthropological tribe . . . may itself derive some motivation from the
hegemonic force of bourgeois individualism (27). Partible and relational identities
would be a universal feature of kinship rather than a universal form of premodern
subjectivity (25). The notion of mutuality of being has thus a double function:
on the one hand, to anchor kinship without grounding it in nature; on the other, to
define kinship, again, from a sociocentric point of view.
These are basic differences between Sahlins approach and previous ones.
These differences bring about some further questions. In what concerns the
anchoring of mutuality without recourse to Nature, I would ask what Michael
Tomasellos work is doing in the book. What does the excursion into Human
Nature do to Sahlins argument? Does he contradict himself? Is it a matter of
choosing between why we cooperate and why we fight type of questions? In
fact, if one looks carefully at the book, one sees that Nature lurks around in many
of its bendsfor instance, in the recurrent distinction between biological and
performative, prenatal and postnatal, birth-ascribed and life-achieved kinship,
though many of his examples dissolve this difference into just kinship with no
further qualification. After all, as he says, all means of constituting kinship are in
essence the same (29). Why then differentiate biological from performative if
there is no way to tell them part?
In framing the book as culture vs. biology, nurture vs. nature, the recourse to
Human Nature seems unavoidable. The production of knowledge in other
scientific areas does matter to us and we have to engage with it. I myself read
Tomasellos work as well as Edward O. Wilsons recent re-framing of eusociality
and inclusive fitness theory as evidences that anthropology got kinship right
because culture is a universal fact for humans as much as eating and procreating
(meaning that no human can eat and procreate outside culture). What we need to
clearly distinguish, however, is when we are using a phylogenetic, an ontogenetic,
or a systemic argument. One thing is to ask how kinship developed during human
evolution or how a child acquires it during its development, another is to study
kinship systems. And this is how I understand part of Sahlins reclaiming of a
sociocentric view.

3. The other part concerns Jrgen Prytz-Johansens kinship I, which appears as the
sociocentric alternative to Stratherns dividual. If I am not mistaken, such opposition
was first brought up by Mark Mosko (1992) and re-taken up by Alan Rumsey (2000),
who argues that both encompassement (heroic I) and detachability (partible person) are
fundamental dimensions of all human language. As I understand Rumsey, he calls for a
2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 29397
From a sociocentric point of view, kinship is a specific human way of establish-
ing a system of differences, of cutting the network of possible connections (the
analogic flow) into determinate relationships. The network is cut in variable ways
across human societies, but in each system as a system, each cut relates to the other
cuts, and cannot be defined outside this system. In this sense, Sahlins is right in
contesting the extensionist hypothesis: nobody is a child to a mother without
being at the same time a nephew to an uncle, a brother to a sister
(whatever these categories mean in each system). On the other hand, the
relationships indexed by these pairs (mother-son, brother-sister) do not cut the
analogic flow in a purely conventional way. There are logical possibilities that never
occur, others that are infrequent, and still others that are so recurrent that make
one address phylogenetic questions. The problem with the latter is not that they do
not make sense, but that they only accept trivial answers in face of the lack of
empirical evidence.
So, regarding the debate between extensionsists and categorialists, I think the
way Sahlins poses the question predetermines his answer. He asks: [D]oes it not
follow that the relations derived from procreation comprise the primary code or
model of all human kinship? Or that such true relations of genealogy provide
the focus or type species of kinship categories? (72). Nevertheless, one could
phrase the same question in a non-genealogical or naturalist framework: Is
mutuality of being constructed out of relationships of containment and begetting,
closeness and feeding, such as the ones prototypically expressed in human and
non-human sexual reproduction? If one poses the question this way, with no
recourse to the opposition between pure nature and culture, the answer could be
yes, could it not? I am, thus, not convinced that the adoption of a prototype
theory for kinship categories necessarily implies a procreative and genealogical
model of kinship. Grounding kinship in the hard facts of life is not the same as
adopting Eleanor Roschs or George Lakoffs non-Aristotelian definition of a class.
Sahlins gives us a number of examples that indicates that a prototypical theory
should not be conflated with a naturalistic extensionist hypothesis. The salience of
a mother-father-child triangle may result from performative kinship and not from
natural relations. Many societies culturally produce this salience through focal-
ization. In the case of procreation, it begins much before birth with a number of
taboos followed either by the mother or the father (or fathers). Anthropology has
usually conceived of such focalizations as a social way for recognizing a natural fact,
and particularly as way of producing a social pater out of a natural uncertainty. But
this is not quite the case; otherwise no such work would be required in regard to
the mother. Could we argue, then, that seclusion, food taboos, and the couvade
produce closeness and sameness, containment and begetting, making some
relationships prototypical in the definition of mutuality and co-presence? Rela-
tionships devolving around procreation are good candidates to stand as prototypes
of certain classes of relations, but they are far from being the only ones.
There is still another scenario in which we could even do without the notion of
performative. The distinction biological/performative is called upon when one
assumes the separate existence of a conceptual world apart from a physical one,

micro-level, interactionist, and discursive analysis of specific ethnographic situations
rather than a general framework based on these two figures.
| Carlos FAUSTO
2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 29397
and then has to connect the two again. But what does happen when we crosscut the
nomos/physis dichotomy, assuming that signs are as much part of our world as,
say, sex? I am not just saying, pace Sahlins, that there is no pre-discursive fact (3),
but also that discursive facts are not only matters of concern, but also matters of
fact, to use Latours vocabularythat is, they are facts as much as sex is. They are
not only constructions (i.e., human conventional worlds). The problem of
constructivism is that in doing without one part of the dichotomy (nature), it
assumes entirely the features of the other side (culture), meaning that it stays within
this very dichotomy.
How should we thus understand the meaning of the expression the symbolic
constitution of? In a Saussurean paradigm, such expression conveys an absolute
arbitrariness between form and meaning. Culture is, throughout, an arbitrary
convention, a conceptual system closed in itself. Another approach (of which a
Peircian one is a good candidate) would make room for different ways of relating
sign and meaning, word and world. The difficulty resides here, as we know, in
defining the nature of reference and avoiding the specter of representationalism.
Does conceiving of signs that establish a non-epistemic continuity between
language and the world necessarily invoke the mirror of nature? As I understand
the expression symbolic constitution of kinship, it does imply a certain relation
with a world, which is as much cultured nature as natured culture. This is what
make it possible for us, as human beings, to recognize something like kinship (or
mutuality of being) whatever we go, and at the same time be equivocal about it.
We know it is there, but sometimes it is not at the place we expect it to be.
In my sense of la parent (which is certainly different from the Anglo-Saxon
one), kinship includes as much sameness as difference, as much mutuality as
reciprocity. And this is why I feel that mutuality does not cover the whole field of la
parent. Perhaps mutualitys Latin etymology can make me better accept it. It
originally meant a loan and by extension something done in return or in exchange.
In this sense, mutuality falls within the framework of the gift, and must include
affinity as central to the constitution of kinship as parenthood and siblingship.
After all the kinship I always poses a kinship other (and vice versa).

Acknowl edgment s
I thank Luiz Costa for his observations on an early version of this comment.

Ref erences
Mosko, Mark. 1992. Motherless sons: Divine heroes and partible persons in
Melanesia and Polynesia. Man (N.S.) 27: 697717.
Needham, Rodney. 1971. Rethinking kinship and marriage. London: ASA
Rumsey, Alan. 2000. Agency, personhood and the I of discourse in the Pacific
and beyond. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6(1): 10115.
2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 29397
Sahlins, Marshall. 2013. What kinship isand is not. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Schneider, David. 1984. A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor, MI:
University of Michigan Press.

Carlos Fausto
Museu Nacional PPGAS
Quinta da Boa Vista s/n
Rio de Janeiro, RJ
20940-040 Brazil